Review: The Master Gardener

You’ve got to give Paul Schrader this: he knows exactly who he is, as a man and a filmmaker, and is going to deliver on it. And if you’ve got any doubt about that, consider that the first post-credit image in his new film Master Gardener is the primary visual motif of his entire filmography (but especially his recent burst of character dramas): a man, alone in a sparsely-furnished room, writing in a journal. “Gardening is a belief in the future,” he reads, in voice over. “A belief that things will happen according to plan. That change will come in due time.” On the heels of the stylish opening credit sequence, where the text splits the screen with time-lapse video of rapidly blooming flowers, we can safely guess that this is not a principle that, in Mr. Schrader’s mind, holds solely true to flowers. 

The man’s name is Narvel Roth, and he’s played with a muted intensity by Joel Edgerton. Narvel is formal and professional, and lives conspicuously, modestly, with discipline (for example, he allows himself one cigarette per day, and only at the end of his shift). He heads a team of gardeners at Gracewood Gardens, on the estate of the obscenely wealthy Miss Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), whose name is spoken with a reverence, accompanied, even, by an offhand sign of the cross. He serves her soil; he also, once a week, serves her in bed. 

This status quo is disrupted by the arrival of her twenty-something grand-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), who visited often as a little girl but who hasn’t seen her great-aunt in years, as her own life has fallen into disarray. Miss Haverhill asks Narvel to take her on as a project, in the hope that an apprenticeship as one of his gardeners can redirect her energy and difficulty into something positive (and, perhaps, exploitable). This simple request proves the first in a series of falling dominos. When Maya is about to see her great-aunt again, Narvel offers her some advice: “You walk a line. Be careful.” He’d be wise to follow it himself.

If his daytimes are noteworthy for their order, his nighttime is chaos – his dreams disrupted by dark, disconnected visions of violence. Because, at least in the movies, no one is as simple as Narvel Roth, and we soon discover that this milquetoast man, in the most genteel of professions, harbors a deep and disturbing secret. 

Master Gardener is a film with tremendous turmoil under its surface, yet the volume and temperature of the events onscreen are sedate – calming, even. Yet we know just enough about Narvel from the jump (and just enough about how these stories so often go) that the events unfold with a kind of doomed certainty. As they do, there are a couple of the odd, inexplicable moments that we’ve come to expect (and accept) in late Schrader. But his minimalist camerawork is bluntly effective, and he’s still capable, as a visual stylist, of blindsiding images of brutality. And as a storyteller, he again sports an unwavering sense of empathy, though this particular narrative may well put that to the test.

As written, Miss Haverhill is a real piece of work, and Weaver nails her specific mixture of class privilege and self-certainty, without succumbing to the urge to soften or apologize. (A scene of her swilling wine and roaring accusations at them could be played as high camp, but it’s a bruiser instead.) Esai Morales is quietly sturdy as the man who connects Narvel’s past and present; the character is a no-drama professional, and the actor comes off the same. But the real find here is Swindell, who conveys Maya’s twin (warring, even) pulls of uncertainty and self-possession. She arrives at Gracewood Gardens like she owns the place – which, technically, partially, she does – but the pleading and desperation in her eyes when told she has to dump the drugs that are getting her through is real, and scary.

Unsurprisingly (as anyone who sees Master Gardener has probably seen Taxi Driver) Narvel attempts to save Maya from the darkness in her life, and as in the earlier film, there is a key question to ask: is that even what she wants? Or merely what he presumes is his job? In stepping up for that job, Schrader expertly captures the kind of man-of-action progression that’s been a career-long preoccupation, recently adopted by high-voltage pictures like John Wick and Nobody: how it’s not only easy to slip back into this old mindset, but ultimately, for men like these, satisfying. They barely have to be pushed back into these old habits. 

Edgerton’s is a performance of tremendous precision, unwavering control, and fierce physicality; he doesn’t have to show his danger to convey that he’s dangerous. But sometimes Narvel’s intentions are harder to read, and when Haverhill impetuously misreads them, it shakes the Etch-A-Sketch of the whole movie. We don’t know where it’s going next, and Schrader creates real tension around if he’s going to pay off what he’s teed up. There are things we expect, and that he knows we expect, based on his previous work. But Schrader’s intentions are never unclear; he’s writing, as he often does, a redemption story. The question, the challenge, is whether you think this man is redeemable.


“The Master Gardener” is in theaters Friday.

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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